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Why people will sack a plumber but won’t sue their doctor

Everyday somebody somewhere summons a plumber. The drain is blocked, the boiler isn’t working, there’s a leak under the sink. The problem is obvious the solution is technical and everyone knows when the job is done. If it’s not fixed asap the plumber is sacked.

That’s rarely what it’s like in medicine. Not everything is a blockage or a break. Not everything can be fixed by sitting quietly with a tool box and following the instructions in the manual.

Many of the commonest problems in healthcare don’t have an easy fix.

  1.  The pain of ‘tennis elbow’ can last for months despite treatment

Patients with tennis elbow can be reassured that most cases will improve in the long term when given information and ergonomic advice about their condition. Bassett et al.

2. Plantar warts don’t always respond to cryotherapy

Little evidence exists for the efficacy of cryotherapy and no consistent evidence for the efficacy of all the other treatments reviewed. Gibbs et al

3. Lung cancer is incurable in most cases

Lung cancer is the main cancer in the world today, whether considered in terms of numbers of cases (1.35 million) or deaths (1.18 million), because of the high case fatality (ratio of mortality to incidence, 0.87). Parkin et al. 

4. Anti hypertensives aren’t guaranteed to prevent stroke

Our analysis indicated that the absolute benefits of antihypertensive therapy depended on BP as well as the presence or absence of additional cardiovascular disease risk factors and the presence or absence of preexisting clinical cardiovascular disease or target organ damage. Ogden et al

5. Mild depression can be hard to treat

The magnitude of benefit of antidepressant medication compared with placebo increases with severity of depression symptoms and may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms. Fournier et al 

6. There is no cure for the common cold ( You don’t need a link for this)

These and most other problems in healthcare cannot be ‘fixed’. They can be diagnosed and they can be ‘managed’ but they can’t be fixed in the way that faulty plumbing can be fixed. Therefore that queue of people in the waiting room is saying something more than ‘I’m here to be fixed.’ Patients are saying:

  1. I am in pain
  2. I am anxious
  3. I am unhappy
  4. I am bored
  5. I am angry
  6. I am confused
  7. I am lonely
  8. I don’t like my job
  9. I can’t pay my bills
  10. I need tablets or surgery

The job of the doctor is to work out which and then to fix what can be fixed and help the patient to live with the rest until their perspective or their circumstances change.

  1. Most people won’t take their tablets as prescribed.

    Because non-compliance remains a major health care problem, high quality research studies are needed to assess these aspects and systematic reviews are required to investigate compliance-enhancing inteventions. Let us hope that the need will be met by 2031. Vermeire et al 

  2. Most people won’t benefit substantially from health promotion advice.

Exercise-referral schemes have a small effect on increasing physical activity in sedentary people. The key challenge, if future exercise-referral schemes are to be commissioned by the NHS, is to increase uptake and improve adherence by addressing the barriers described in these studies. Williams et al

3. Most people get better in spite of treatment and not because of it.

Disease mongering can include turning ordinary ailments into medical problems, seeing mild symptoms as serious, treating personal problems as medical, seeing risks as diseases, and framing prevalence estimates to maximise potential markets. Moynihan et al

But then most people will be deeply grateful to their family doctor because they don’t have to respond a certain way to be treated with respect and they don’t expect a ‘cure’ and won’t ask for their money back when things don’t work out. The doctor’s role is to be there, to encourage, to educate, to accept and to walk with their patient through all the challenges that life has to offer.

Picture by Vicki

How can medicine compete against the new normal?

Joanna was exactly the person we are being urged to help. In her forties, overweight verging on obese. Hypertensive, asymptomatic but well on her way to chronic diseases. We discussed her diet.

I like salt. So my food tends to be salty. Also most people in my house are my size. I thought about reducing my portions but I like meat, lots of meat. I’m a member of a gym but I rarely go there.

We talked about her risk of heart disease and encouraged her to banish the salt cellar from the table, perhaps think again about reducing the portion size and making time to go to the gym. She looked at me pityingly her eyes said

Well that ain’t gonna happen

This was not a teachable moment. She was not ready to make an investment in changing her habits. She could not see that she was at risk. She was ‘normal’ as far as she could see. So she was not going to change her diet to deal with a problem that she did not perceive as real.

There are many things that are regarded as ‘normal’.

It is now normal:

  1. To have to wear extra large clothes.
  2. To be offered larger portion sizes when we dine out
  3. For more than one in three Australians aged 14 years and over to consume alcohol on a weekly basis
  4. For friends or acquaintances to be the most likely sources of alcohol for 12–17 year olds (45.4%), with parents being the second most likely source (29.3%)
  5. For more than one in three Australians aged 14 years and over to have used cannabis one or more times in their life
  6. For more one in ten people to drink and drive
  7. For one in three people to lose their virginity before the age of 16 ( i.e. before the age of consent) and also to have multiple partners
  8. For 66 percent of all men and 41 percent of women to view pornography at least once a month, and that an estimated 50 percent of internet traffic is sex-related.
  9. For most people who join a gym to never use it

These and many other trends dictate what is ‘normal’ to the average person. It’s OK to eat and drink far too much because everyone else does. It’s OK to be promiscuous, watch pornography and take risks because that’s what people see happening all around them.

Against these trends the challenge is to seek opportunities when ‘normal’ is seen as risky and hopefully before that risk has manifested as pathology.

Picture by Mario Antonio Pean Zapat

Doctor now that my ears are older I can hear you so much better

He was much more willing to listen than the twenty nine year old who was only interested in his sprained ankle. The attitude that millennials consider themselves invincible might explain it. Dave on the other hand wanted a certificate for work. Bit of a headache that morning. Didn’t go to work.

So, we got talking. He coaches a local football team. Now 50 can’t keep up with the young blokes on the field. Can still drink ten pints of beer on Saturday night at the club but most other nights happy to settle for two and some nights doesn’t drink at all. He snores. His trouser size gone up to 36 for the first time ever. Feels too stiff and breathless to do any real exercise. His blood pressure is borderline though be feels well enough.

Just under 1 million Australians were born between 1962 and 1966. Even though birthdays at each decade are usually marked by a special celebration, those for 50 are often unusually large. Being fifty is a bid deal.

It is in their 50’s, for example, that most people first think of their lives in terms of how much time is left rather than how much has passed. This decade more than any other brings a major reappraisal of the direction one’s life has taken, of priorities, and, most particularly, how best to use the years that remain. NY Times

  • 50 year olds are now officially “middle aged” technically ‘Generation X’.
  • Retirement benefits are only going to be available when they reach 67 and the money may have to last another 20-30 years.
  • At 50, many couples still have kids in the nest, with educations to be financed, teaching them to drive with attendant expenses , and, perhaps, weddings and helping with house purchase.
  • They may have parents in their 70s and 80s. They are watching mum and dad and their worries about healthcare and long term care expenses.
  • At 50 the majority of people are over weight or obese, the risk of hypertension begins to rise at this age, some men suffer erection dissatisfaction, many may start to have problems seeing clearly at close distances, especially when reading and working on the computer, the prevalence of hearing loss ranges from 20 to 40 percent. Things just don’t work like they used to!

Gen X has to stay healthy because in this economic climate early retirement is not an option. Within this context Dave and I began the work of focusing on his physical well being. The conversation was much more satisfying. This ‘teachable moment’ allowed us to engage in some simple strategies- reducing portion size, drinking less, taking up gentle exercise and keeping an eye on his blood pressure. Now Dave is earnest in his desire to invest in his health. That’s a good thing because at 50 one in 15 men will have heart disease by the time he is 60 one in four men will have developed that condition. Now is the time to invest. For his sake if not for the economy.

The average age of GPs in Australia is also about 50. We will make the journey together because that’s what general practice is all about. No gadget, gizmo or app was required to forge the connection, no research grant or policy. Just doing what we are trained to do.

Picture by Rene Gademann

Why hardly any medical invention is better than a six inch wooden stick

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A timeless and effective innovation:

  • Can be deployed in any setting
  • Cheap and easily available
  • Familiar
  • Requires minimal training
  • Acceptable to all
  • Unobtrusive or at least does not impact negatively on the consultation
  • Changes how we feel

The best one yet is the humble tongue depressor. How does your gadget, gizmo or app compare?

I recall our then 14 year old returning from a visit to his GP.

Dad, he didn’t even examine me!

It seems the doctor did not look into his sore throat and somehow the patient felt ‘cheated’.

But son, it wouldn’t have made any difference if he did look in your throat, doctors can’t tell if a sore throat is cause by a virus or something else just by looking at it.

I know that dad but the ‘magic’ is in the examination.

That from a 14 year old! A few months later an older woman consulted me with the ‘worst sore throat ever!’ I took a history of what sounded like a upper respiratory tract infection and the examined her very unimpressive throat with said wooden spatula. As I turned away to put it in the bin she said:

There’s one more thing doctor. For the first time in ten years I haven’t been able to afford books for my kids going to school. So I’ve been working as a prostitute.

It is possible or even probable that she would have told me this anyway. However I posit that the an examination with a wooden spatula is a profoundly intimate act. It changes the dynamic in the consultation when your doctor is able to see your sore red throat, is able to notice what you had for your lunch, whether you clean and floss your teeth and smell your bad breath. These intimate details are not shared with everyone or even with our most trusted confidantes. Indeed breath odour has been associated with a very significant impact on self image:

…smell from mouth breath odour can connect or disconnect a person from their social environment and intimate relationships. How one experiences one’s own body is very personal and private but also very public. Breath odour is public as it occurs within a social and cultural context and personal as it affects one’s body image and self-confidence. McKeown

In that context further disclosures can follow an examination of the mouth in a way that can change the diagnosis and management.

That is a truly valuable innovation.

Picture by USMC archives

What drives people away from doctors?

3661194585_438071ddc6_zInnovation is most effective when it enables a health practitioner and his patient or client to communicate. The ‘consumer’ if that’s what we choose to call them has a problem, they are in pain or have some other symptom. They are anxious or can’t see how they will ever recover from whatever it is. Their problem may be caused by a virus, or some other pathogen, it may be related to their diet or lifestyle or it may be a manifestation of  inheritance or an accident. It may be temporary, persistent or fatal. Whatever the problem the consumer must leave the building feeling that they have been heard and that the practitioner has taken this into account in his or her prescription.

What they don’t want is for the practitioner to be distracted in the process of attending to those needs. They crave empathy which is best expressed by ensuring that the patient is in no doubt that the doctor is listening, hearing and cares enough to want what’s in that person’s best interests. A recurring theme in this blog is that there are ten precious minutes, in the case of general practice when the practitioner can ensure that this first and essential goal is achieved. Everything else that happens in and around that consultation needs to support that objective.

Don’t introduce a new gadget, gizmo or policy that will detract from that experience. Don’t force the doctor to spend time on some other agenda. Those few minutes, in many ‘systems’  is the only time that is available to facilitate healing through human connection. If your innovation serves to enhance that exchange then it becomes part of the healing process. If it doesn’t it becomes yet another distraction in a failing healthcare system and the consumer will choose to go elsewhere or refuse to take the medicine. When it comes to seeking alternatives, research tells us that:

Five factors were identified, in order of importance: a positive valuation of complementary treatment, the ineffectiveness of orthodox treatment for their complaint, concern about the adverse effects of orthodox medicine, concerns about communication with doctors and, of less importance, the availability of complementary medicine. Vincent and Furnham

Not all medicines will work. Not all prognosis are favourable. However the business of doctoring is most constrained by the fact that our patients need to feel seen and heard. It’s astonishing how often policy makers and even innovators ignore this fact and make a bad situation worse.

Picture by Michael Forausch

Simply correcting myths may be counterproductive- context is everything

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The spritely 80 year old man who sat in my consulting room was adamant.

No thanks doctor every time I get a flu jab I get the flu. So not this year. Thank you.

That was the third time that day that I had heard this argument against the flu vaccine. It troubled me. The individuals most likely to benefit were refusing vaccination and some of them say the same thing every year. And yet authoritative advice is that:

In randomized, blinded studies, where some people get inactivated flu shots and others get salt-water shots, the only differences in symptoms was increased soreness in the arm and redness at the injection site among people who got the flu shot. There were no differences in terms of body aches, fever, cough, runny nose or sore throat. CDC

Nonetheless 43% of the American public believes that flu vaccine can give you the flu. In the same study it was found that:

Corrective information adapted from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website significantly reduced belief in the myth that the flu vaccine can give you the flu as well as concerns about its safety. However, the correction also significantly reduced intent to vaccinate among respondents with high levels of concern about vaccine side effects–a response that was not observed among those with low levels of concern. This result, which is consistent with previous research on misperceptions about the MMR vaccine, suggests that correcting myths about vaccines may not be an effective approach to promoting immunization. Nyhan and Reifler

So it seems that providing information, no matter how authoritative,  is not enough to get people who are already opposed to being vaccinated to change their minds, in fact it may do the opposite! According to the theory of planned behaviour human actions are guided by three kinds of considerations:

  1. Behavioural beliefs ( beliefs about the likely consequences of their behaviour)
  2. Normative beliefs ( beliefs about the normative expectations of others)
  3. Control beliefs ( beliefs about the presence of factors that may facilitate or impede performance of the behaviour)

Therefore interventions that are aimed at providing information only do not work. We need to address attitudes, perceived norms and control if we are to see increased rates of immunisation. When this theory was applied to understanding how to improve flu vaccination rates it was concluded that:

Future studies could use social cognition models to identify predictors of actual vaccine uptake, and potentially compare these findings to predictors of people’s intentions to be vaccinated. Once identified, these factors could be used to craft targeted interventions aimed at increasing vaccine uptake. Myers and Goodwin

It seems that the intervention needs to be targeted and that there are several factors that identify people who intend to be immunised:

  • The employed,
  • Older people
  • Having a positive attitude to flu vaccination,
  • Scoring high on subjective norm, perceived control, and anticipated regret,
  • Intending to have a seasonal flu vaccination this year,
  • Scoring low on not being bothered to have a vaccination and
  • Believing that flu vaccination decreases the likelihood of getting flu or its complications and would result in a decrease in the frequency of consulting their doctor.

Those less keen on  vaccination may be from specific ethnic groups. The authors advise that

These racial disparities emphasise the need to involve stakeholders in the community and to reassure the community and address their concerns and resistance attitudes and beliefs.

Also people may also be more influenced by information obtained from peers and news media than information distributed by the government in print. Such “external” influences also need to be addressed in order to facilitate vaccination uptake. And so back to my patient, it seems that information alone would not change his mind- which was indeed my experience. In order change his mind we will need to target him in the context of his community, his family and his concerns. The battle for hearts and minds includes both hearts and minds. As always context is everything.

Picture by NHS Employers

The failure to communicate is costing us billions

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The Weekend Australian headline today, Sunday 24th April 2016 declared that

Healthcare waste costs $20bn a year

According to the graph on the first page of the paper there were 105-110 General Practitioners (GPs) or specialists in 2004. Although the number of GPs per 100,000 population has remained static there are now more than 130 specialists per 100,000 people . Therefore the rising cost of waste in healthcare runs parallel to the increase in specialists in the population. The source is quoted as the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care.

But there is nothing new about this story. This trend was demonstrated in previous decades. More primary care equals lower costs the formula isn’t complex. Reading the papers today we recall the late Barbara Starfield’s words:

Six mechanisms, alone and in combination, may account for the beneficial impact of primary care on population health. They are (1) greater access to needed services, (2) better quality of care, (3) a greater focus on prevention, (4) early management of health problems, (5) the cumulative effect of the main primary care delivery characteristics, and (6) the role of primary care in reducing unnecessary and potentially harmful specialist care.

The disappointing thing about the accompanying newspaper commentary was the suggestion that the solution is political. The journalistic analysis is that powerful lobby groups have managed to influence policy to the point where there is subsidised over servicing of the population. Specifically prostatectomies, colonoscopies, arthroscopies, cataract surgery, hysterectomies and CT scans.

In a country where general practice remains the gatekeeper to specialist services we need to figure out how we might be able to tackle the problem for the sake of the economy. The solution is to remain circumspect about another quick fix because we have learned that politics and the need to be popular with the electorate rarely delivers anything like a lasting solution.

In medicine people are referred or persuaded to have treatment or investigations and under the ‘big data’ is the story of ineffective consultations. One where either the patient is not examined or an adequate history taken, or where the risk and benefits are not explained to the patient in a way that informs the decision. After all if that were not the case which patient at very low risk would chose to have a colonoscopy?

What is the difference between managing a request for an antibiotic for a cold and managing a request for a CT scan for mechanical back pain? To those who are cynical about the chances of getting the message heard we might say wait. When there is sufficient pain the bureaucrats will beat a path to your door. There is no solution as effective as improving how we communicate with patients, anything else will paper over the hole, no the chasm, in the budget.

Picture by Christopher Blizzard.

Why wearables don’t work and people don’t floss their teeth

Wearable devices are now a billion dollar business:

Fitbit Reports $712M Q415 and $1.86B FY15 Revenue; Guides to $2.4 to $2.5B Revenue in FY16. Press release.

In a wonderful article from the Washington Post the author reports:

Another friend, a woman in her 40s, explained: “I realized that there were a couple weeks where I took it off because it was making me feel bad when I was ‘failing,’ so why do that to myself?” Steven Petrow

Associated Press pointed out that:

One research firm, Endeavour Partners, estimates that about a third of these trackers get abandoned after six months. A health care investment fund, Rock Health, says Fitbit’s regulatory filings suggest that only half of Fitbit’s nearly 20 million registered users were still active as of the first quarter of 2015. Anick Jesdanun

This is consistent with what my patients are telling me. I’ve seen the same trend with relatives. But it is all very predictable because these devices fail on one fundamental count. People are not logical. Information alone does not lead people to make choices. Humans are driven by emotion and not just information. If that were not the case people would floss their teeth, not text while driving or borrow more than they can afford to pay.

Innovations that rely on people acting on information to improve healthcare outcomes have no longterm future. If we want people to change their choices we need to accept that information alone does not lead to behaviour change. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging studies of the human brain have identified that our brains are resistant to change even when the change might be in our best interests. Habits drive our behaviours and are as an old pair of slippers, comfortable, familiar and easy. Change requires us to activate other parts of our brain, expend energy, learn and adopt new habits. Change requires effort which most people find uncomfortable. As a result, change is avoided and the easiest thing is to refuse to heed the message and bin the device.

There are three stages to adopting new behaviours:

  1. Unfreezing current patterns/unlearning old behaviours.
  2. Changing/applying new behaviours.
  3. Embedding new behaviours.

Of these wearables provide information that might get us underway with the first step by getting us to question the status quo. However that is far from what is required to get us to adopt a diet and exercise regimen. This so-called ‘disconfirming data’ is not enough – we can easily dismiss it, ignore it, or deny its validity. Which most people seem to be doing because it isn’t enough to generate new habits. Two other factors that are also essential to get us to the next stage:

  1. We need to accept that something is wrong and
  2. We need to believe that we can do what is necessary.

The ‘something wrong’ is the problem. Many people who are overweight or obese don’t see themselves are having a problem because in most cases the condition is asymptomatic. They may be surrounded by people who are of a similar body habitus and are therefore resistant to any notion that this body shape is in any sense abnormal. Finally for many people the idea that they might be able to change their shape is hard to swallow as in many cases they do not see results after weeks of effort.

For innovators a fundamental message is that there is no quick fix to healthcare problems because fundamentally humans are feeling not thinking creatures and therefore not responsive to messages that only tackle part of the drivers for change.

Picture by Philippe Put

Business R&D approaches may be the salvation of healthcare

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There are lots of get rich quick ideas around. Just as there are lots of people who will tell you they can fix the healthcare system. But as the song goes:

There’s a guy works down the chip shop swears he’s Elvis
But he’s a liar and I’m not sure about you. KM

What really works requires knowledge of the business you want to fix, especially when you know what happens when the rubber hits the road, not a decade ago, not even five years ago but last Friday afternoon.

There are opportunities to improve every aspect of healthcare but that requires accepting one fundamental point:

People don’t really care whether their actions will please you or not.

People won’t change to please their doctor, their pharmacist, their mother or their government. They will adopt an intervention because it helps them do what they want to do for themselves. The opportunities lie in understanding how to work within these parameters. This is fundamental when it comes to business and people have made significant headway adopting this paradigm. Here are some ideas that demonstrate the power of knowing something about the needs and wants of the target audience:

  1.  Peerby from Amsterdam enables people to borrow expensive items from their neighbours, rather than splashing out on new products.
  2. Fortaleza Tour in Panama City is a walking tour set up by rehabilitated graduates of the Esperanza Social Venture Club — an organization dedicated to demobilizing Panama’s street gangs, integrating their members into society, and improving the area’s economy.
  3. Peru’s black vultures are well known locally for their natural aptitude for garbage location. In that country by fitting a flock of them with GoPros, the authorities collect real-time GPS data and enable the people to find the illegal dumps across the city of Lima.
  4. The UNPF is currently flying condoms, birth control pill and other medical supplies to the Upper East Region of Ghana using a fleet of long-flying drones.
  5. Many of the hosts on Airbnb are vacation property managers with multiple lettings. There are a number of startups offering management platforms and services that enable them to optimize their sub-letting business. Now, Parakeet is a platform that enables hosts to manage and monitor their property remotely via a cloud-based dashboard and keyless entrance system.

There are numerous examples of such out-of-the-box thinking. These innovations allow people to continue as before, to access equipment they hardly ever use but sometimes need, use their knowledge of a neighbourhood to make a living, use nature to monitor the environment, deploy technology to allow people to make personal choices and facilitate ownership of investment properties. The key aspect in each case is keen observation and insight.

This is needed in healthcare, local solutions that can be scaled to improve outcomes without imposing burdens on patients or practitioners. Nobody is as well placed to make these advances than those who already deliver and or avail of the services.

Picture by Cris

Observations of healthcare workers may be better than big data

Apparently when a message is put alongside a cardboard cut-out of a person it is more likely to be noticed and actioned. How the message is relayed to the ‘customer’ matters. This has implications for the sort of results we seek in health care. I am sure the reader could think of many ways this observation can be deployed to improve outcomes in healthcare, just as retail and law enforcement organisations use the concept to communicate with their customers. For example, would you consider having a full sized cardboard representation of a doctor in your practice encouraging people to have their children immunized? Richard Wortley offers some other interesting insights and strategies for behaviour change albeit in the context of law enforcement. What healthcare needs is interventions and ideas, whatever their provenance.

The observations and insights of your staff and colleagues are often, if not always, more valid than so-called ‘big data’. Big data sets are often used for some other purpose (e.g. healthcare administration) and then extrapolated to understand why people are referred inappropriately or prescribed the wrong drugs. More often than not without reference to the people who collected the data in the first place. It is even more fashionable to ‘link’ this data to other information collected for yet another purpose ( e.g. cancer registry). The results may lead to dubious conclusions and wide-ranging policy changes endorsed by a professor or two who have never been on the shop floor, or at least not recently.

‘Big data’ may be easy to collect, despite the limitations of its validity, it offers substantial numbers for a statistician to ‘crunch’. National conferences are now themed on ‘big data’, there are substantial grants available to those who choose this ‘methodology’ for their research endeavours. Meanwhile, the local and contextualized reflections and observations of those delivering health care are seldom accorded the same credibility. The desire for a fast and cheap solution to the increasing cost of healthcare drives funders to throw dollars at anyone who promises a quick-fix and can cite a p-value.

Here the business literature may be relevant:

The study identified a number of factors that influence the success or inhibit progress in terms of performance and sustainable improvement. The findings identify what companies perceive to be inhibitors and enablers for sustainability, within 21 companies who have conducted process improvement (PI) activities using a common intervention approach…..The general and cultural nature of the identified enablers indicates that managers perceive progressing PI activities are reliant on a change of culture within their organisations in parallel with “up‐skilling” the technical knowledge of employees for change to be successfully enacted. The lack of specific processes to change culture, identified in the enablers, also indicates that managers do not know what to do to change their cultures or how best to deal with the inherently challenging and demanding nature of process improvement with shop floor operators. Rich and Bateman

Sounds like healthcare. Perhaps the methodologies deployed in successful care studies hint at a better approach. No big database was dissected in this example which resulted in sustained business performance in an Australian company:

Using data collected through in-depth interviews, the case study describes how the company progressed from an earlier initiative based on quality control to the present initiatives that emphasize customer focus, product development, and innovation. Several important insights are drawn from the case study, including the importance of aligning the quality programmes or initiatives with a clear strategic focus. Prajogo and Sohal

Stand by for the launch of a new academic forum which will focus on the patient experience as the driver of innovation.

Picture by Aranami